Much like the ODI series against the West Indies last month, there would not be a lot of interest for the five ODIs and one-off T20 against Sri Lanka. The Islanders, once a tough nut to crack for India had been bland and boring in the Test series. The limited overs matches were expected to be another tedious exercise with the Indians just going out there, disposing their opponents off and going home. The first ODI turned out to be exactly that as India cruised to a 9-wicket win inside 29 overs, chasing a modest target of 217. There was no cause for excitement and there won't be going forward.
Unless the Indian selectors decide to spice things up.
When the Indian team for the limited overs series against Sri Lanka was announced on 13 August, there was a huge exclusion. Yuvraj Singh. The man who had played a major role in ensuring India's 'Cricket God' was spared the ignominy of retiring without having held a World Cup aloft. The man who wreaked havoc at Durban in a must-win game against England in the 2007 World T20. The man who moved like a Rolls Royce on the field when most of his teammates (except of course, Mohammad Kaif) looked like riding tuk-tuks. The man whose high back lift and flourish of the blade as he leant into a drive was poetry in motion. The man they call the 'Prince'. Dropped.
The chairman of selectors MSK Prasad tried to assuage the alarm at Yuvraj not being picked by saying that the southpaw was 'rested' rather than 'dropped' and that "doors are never closed on anybody". But he didn't fail to underline the importance of fitness and the primacy the selectors were putting on it, keeping especially the World Cup in mind. "If I put my hand on my heart and say after the Champions Trophy, we felt that we need to be a fitter and a stronger side. We felt that we need to raise our fitness levels and we needed to raise our fielding standards," Prasad said.
The chief selector talked about certain parameters for fitness that have been fixed leading up to the World Cup and went on to state, "If someone fails to match those parameters, he will not be considered irrespective of whoever it is."
Yuvraj hasn't been the player he used to be since coming back from cancer, and there is no denying the fact that age is catching up with him.
Now, those are ominous words as far as Yuvraj is concerned. Especially when you consider that he failed an endurance test at the National Cricket Academy (NCA). Especially when you consider that the fielder who once had electric reflexes at and around backward point is seen lumbering across the field these days. Especially when you consider that the imperious flashes of the blade have given way to modest dabs and pushes. An innings once in a blue moon like the one against England at Cuttack earlier in the year, or against Pakistan in India's opening match at the Champions Trophy, only makes you look ruefully at the time gone by. The scars of Yuvraj's 21-ball 11 that totally sucked the life out of India's innings in the 2014 World T20 final against Sri Lanka are still fresh in one's mind. Yuvraj hasn't been the player he used to be since coming back from cancer, and there is no denying the fact that age is catching up with him.
Yuvraj's former India teammate Gautam Gambhir, who knows all about facing the axe from the national selectors, refused to buy the argument of the Punjab batsman being 'rested'.
"I don't think 'rest' is the right word because he (Yuvraj) hasn't played any cricket for quite a while and he would be wanting to play. If you want to see him at the World Cup, he should be given the maximum opportunity. Because, someone like Yuvraj, you want him in that flow, you want him in that rhythm. You can't be giving someone like him one series and resting him again," Gambhir told ESPNCricinfo. He went on to add that it would now be difficult for Yuvraj to return to the side.
Heat is also on Suresh Raina, who failed the endurance test at the NCA along with Yuvraj. Part of the generation of players who revolutionised Indian fielding in the mid-to-late noughties, Raina has been out of favour with the selectors for a while now and it is not surprising that the lack of match practice would have affected his stamina.
If someone fails to match the parameters, he will not be considered irrespective of whoever it is, said MSK Prasad
Yuvraj Singh (L) and Mahendra Singh Dhoni run between the wickets during the 2nd ODI of the series against England at Cuttack in January 2017. Reuters
Today, when the game has become inestimably more competitive and fast with the advent of T20s, you have to be good in all aspects of the game to justify your worth in the team. Gone are the days when fielding can be taken lightly and fast bowlers would trudge down to third man and fine leg after bowling an over to 'rest' and 'recharge' themselves, with diving around to save runs hardly being on the top of their minds, nor being expected of them. But nowadays you see an Umesh Yadav fielding as if his life depended on it even after bowling a tiring over at pace.
What about Mahendra Singh Dhoni? The hero of so many battles, marauder with the bat, finisher extraordinaire and wicketkeeper of the highest calibre. Notwithstanding the many doubts, expressed even by former India international Erapalli Prasanna, on whether he would last till the 2019 World Cup, Dhoni has always remained adamant that he would be there for the showpiece event in England.
At present, there is not a lot to suggest that Dhoni doesn't merit a place in the team. He can still run like a gazelle between the wickets, has lightning fast hands behind the stumps and can still hit a long ball, albeit with less frequency than before. Eyebrows were raised at his 114-ball 54 in the fourth ODI against West Indies, which was the slowest ODI fifty by an Indian in 16 years and the major reason India could not overhaul a paltry 189. It was a total anti-climax after Dhoni had anchored India's innings only in the match before, scoring almost a run-a-ball 78 that took India past 250. Questions are therefore inevitable on whether the ageing stars of the team can be as good as they used to be on a consistent basis.
So is Dhoni still an automatic choice in the Indian team? What do the selectors make of his chances to play the 2019 World Cup?
Prasad was pretty clear-cut. "If he is delivering, why not? If he is not, we will have to look at alternatives," said the chief selector. He was bashed on social media for his comments, with many needlessly comparing his international record as a wicketkeeper-batsman with that of Dhoni to question his locus standi to take a call on the latter's career, not realising that Prasad was there to choose the best possible eleven at a given point of time without getting overawed by past achievements of the players involved. The Indian public, sadly, still gets driven by a love for stars and fails to appreciate that matches are won not by the dint of past achievements, but performance on a given day.
Gambhir, weighing in on his former captain Dhoni's presence in the Team India set up, felt past achievements should not be a guarantee for a place in the team. "Okay, you have done something in the past but that has passed. You can keep playing till you want to if you keep performing," the Delhi batsman said bluntly, while advising Dhoni to keep performing to survive till the 2019 World Cup. That should be the criteria for everyone, irrespective of whether he is Dhoni or someone else," Gambhir said in an interview to ESPNCricinfo.
Today, when the game has become inestimably more competitive and fast with the advent of T20s, you have to be good in all aspects of the game to justify your worth in the team.
The selectors, however, have started to display a change at the realm of the mindset. Their mindset now is informed by ruthlessness. One that seeks to break the shackles of star culture. One that emphasises performance over reputation. It is precisely the philosophy that Greg Chappell had tried to instil, but got hounded the same way as Prasad was for his comment on Dhoni in particular.
For all the mistakes Chappell committed during his time as the coach of the Indian team, what he can't be faulted on was his effort to clear the cobwebs of star culture and shake the 'seniors' out of their comfort zones, for they had grown resistant to change and too many of them had started to take their places in the team for granted. Chappell tried to introduce a regimen based on discipline and fitness and for that he was willing to take on the powers that be in Indian cricket.
Take for example his infamous spat with the then captain Sourav Ganguly, who was also the most successful Indian captain in Tests at that time. Ironically, Chappell had helped Ganguly fine-tune his batting before India's tour to Australia in 2003-04 and Ganguly's support was largely responsible for Chappell getting the job as the Indian coach in the first place.
Ganguly’s contribution to Indian cricket has been undeniable. One of the finest captains India have ever had, it was he who had taught the team to look the opponent in the eye and inspired them to many a win on foreign soil. He can be credited for sanitising the Indian dressing in the aftermath of the debilitating betting fiasco at the turn of the millennium.
However, when Chappell suggested Ganguly to step down from captaincy, during the tour of Zimbabwe in 2005, the southpaw had been going through a horrendous run with the bat for a lengthy period of time. India had also suffered a string of debacles in the immediate past under him, starting with a subpar performance in the 2004 Champions Trophy, a Test series loss at home to Australia for the first time since 1969, failure to win either the Test or ODI series against Pakistan at home even after taking a lead in both. Add to that his atrocious fitness and fielding.
All this did not sit well with Chappell and his uncompromising attitude towards quality. When he emailed the BCCI that Ganguly was “mentally and physically” unfit to lead the side, he had seen the many malaises that Ganguly had started to be afflicted by, with almost no initiative to improve. So when Ganguly sought Chappell’s opinion before the first Test against Zimbabwe on whom to play in the side among Yuvraj and Kaif, Chappell bluntly told him that he would choose to play both, with Ganguly sitting out.
In Chappell’s eyes one constantly had to prove his worth in the team. Ganguly, however, thought his past achievements, talent and seniority had earned him the right to not only stay in the team, but also lead it.
The southpaw was dropped subsequently from the ODI and Test teams, which led to vehement protests and in an ODI against South Africa at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata in late 2005, the crowd booed the Indian team and started cheering for the Proteas as they cantered towards victory. Ganguly being dropped from the side even became an issue of protest in Parliament.
The former Indian captain was recalled for the Test series in Pakistan in early 2006 and was reportedly asked by the selectors to get into shape by playing domestic cricket. But who is to force the ‘Prince of Calcutta’ to practise if he doesn’t want to? Ganguly skipped two of Bengal’s First Class matches and turned up for the third almost because it was unavoidable.
Such was the star tantrums that Chappell was up against, and when you factor in the support Ganguly was known to have had from one of the country’s topmost cricket honchos, Jagmohan Dalmiya, Chappell’s job became all the more difficult.
In Chappell’s eyes one constantly had to prove his worth in the team.
“The challenge for Indian cricket was and probably always will be that it is more important (for the players) to be in the team than to be in the best team in the world,” Chappell said in an interview to Fox Sports.
The Australian knew that the seniors in the Indian team had become too entrenched, and so he unabashedly supported the infusion of youth. “There were some senior players who were struggling, they needed to be removed from the scene, go back, sort themselves out and come back,” he told ESPNCricinfo.
Chappell wanted the Indian team to be injected with new bursts of energy. He wanted to bring in fresh blood who he felt were more eager to learn and be less resistant to his plans. And so he backed players like Raina, RP Singh, VRV Singh, Irfan Pathan and Venugopal Rao to the hilt. He believed that carrying on with the same set of players and keeping talented youngsters in the wilderness would result in a generation being lost.
He was not happy with the team that he got for the 2007 World Cup, which had players who did not fit in his scheme of things in the first place, notably Ganguly, who had been called back largely on popular demand.
Granted that the ouster from the squad was a hard reality check for former Indian captain, who reinvented himself and was a changed batsman since his comeback. The silken touch was back, though he might have left his best years behind him. Chappell can claim some credit for this, having pushed Ganguly to go that extra mile. Incidentally Ganguly got his only Test double century after his comeback.
The then Indian cricket coach Greg Chappell (R) talks to Sourav Ganguly during a practice session at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai in November 2005. AFP
The challenge for Indian cricket was and probably always will be that it is more important (for the players) to be in the team than to be in the best team in the world, Greg Chappell said
However, his fielding was still an area of concern, and not only him, Zaheer Khan, Munaf Patel and Anil Kumble were the players in the World Cup squad who could be termed as laggards on the field.
“There were options… but this is the team that India wanted,” Chappell said, perhaps taking a subtle dig at teams in India for even World Cups being chosen more on emotion than reason.
“We are going to be conceding runs in the field to the better teams, there is no doubt about that… our batting has to find 30 extra runs a game and our bowlers will have to concede that many less. So between the two we will have to make up for 30 runs somewhere,” Chappell told ESPNCricinfo in what was a gloomy assessment of the fielding abilities of the squad.
The mistake that Chappell, however, made was to transpose hard-nosed Australian values and philosophies to an Indian setting and the clash of cultures was enormous. Those were the values that explain the selectors Down Under mercilessly dumping two of the greatest cricketers of all time and servants of Australian cricket for ages, Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting, when in the selectors’ estimation they were past their prime. It took no time for the Australian selectors to move ahead. And no questions were asked, beyond the initial murmurs of disapproval.
But could something similar have happened in India? The Ganguly incident showed how a ‘perform or perish’ model was at odds with the Indian culture, which is more accommodative, where seniority carries a considerable aura, and where affective considerations often override those of pure merit, in the process compromising on quality. It is also commonplace to use your contacts in the corridors of power to safeguard your own position.
The mistake that Chappell, however, made was to transpose hard-nosed Australian values and philosophies to an Indian setting and the clash of cultures was enormous.
Imagine the upsurge that would have been created had Sachin Tendulkar been as unceremoniously dumped as Hayden or Ponting! Though the then chief selector Sandeep Patil said in an interview later that he would have dropped Tendulkar from the ODI team in 2012 had he not announced his retirement, one can well imagine how the Master Blaster's admirers would have reacted. Chappell made a terrible misjudgment at the cultural level and failed spectacularly.
He in fact fell out with Tendulkar as well when the latter refused to be flexible and bat in the middle order in ODIs as Chappell had suggested, and instead was adamant to hold on to his opening slot. The merit of Chappell’s suggestion is debatable, but what it highlighted again was a senior and a superstar’s resistance to change. Could Tendulkar have done this and got away if he were an Australian? Remember Hayden and Ponting were no less superstars in their country.
The present Indian selection committee looks to have embraced Chappell’s philosophy by refusing to be swayed by star culture. It took more than a decade for the selectors to do so. You have had selectors who were known to have used back channels to convince VVS Laxman to call it a day when his best days were over.
The MSK Prasad-led selection panel has, however, gone a step further and made a bold decision in omitting Yuvraj from the side and a BCCI official privy to the selection process is known to have told news agency PTI that the southpaw is no longer in the reckoning for the 2019 World Cup. Even head coach Ravi Shastri has announced that only the fittest would survive in times to come.
Dhoni, on the other hand, can't take his place in the team for granted anymore. There is a fantastic young replacement in Rishabh Pant waiting in the wings, while Manish Pandey can stroll into Yuvraj’s place in the middle order. There would be some heartburn if India go to the World Cup without Yuvraj and/or Dhoni, for we Indians are still as unprepared for the radical methods originally introduced by Chappell now, as we were 12 years ago. But would Prasad and Co be brave enough?